From Shore to Shore puts the Chinese community in the limelight

From Shore to Shore

From Shore to Shore - Credit: Archant

Mary Cooper is a lecturer and a playwright with over thirty years’ experience. Her latest project, From Shore to Shore, explores a subject that has really opened her eyes to the British Chinese community.

Mary is a freelance playwright and also a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton. In 2010 the University of Bolton were asked to bid to run a course for the Chinese Arts centre in Manchester. Mary takes up the story, “They asked me to become involved with the bid and the course was to work with emerging British Chinese writers. They wanted someone to work with writers at the beginning of the careers in order to enable them to enter the mainstream because there is an absence of Chinese faces and Chinese input in the artistic mainstream especially in literature. I devised a course and the University of Bolton, won the very competitive bid, then ran the course in conjunction with the Arvon foundation as well as the University and the Chinese Arts Centre for 10 weeks with emerging Chinese writers. Mary continues, “During the process the stories that I heard made me realise my ignorance regarding the British Chinese community and I felt that the stories were untold and might remain so because they have practically been invisible from the artistic mainstream.” She worked with one of the writers, Mimi Webster Sun, who was on the course to try and generate a project that would tell some of the stories from the Chinese community. “Mimi was one of the original students and together we interviewed Cantonese, Mandarin and Hakka speakers in the North and from that we made the play. Mimi worked on the linguistic side and giving the Chinese cultural aspects authenticity and I, because I have been a playwright for thirty years, enabled the creation of the play.”

Mary went on to explain the basis of the play. “It is creating a story which is representative of the people I interviewed rather than specific to an individual. It is truthful, but not true of one specific individual. They are representative stories which embody the stories I was told. The stories represent the three generations of the Chinese community in the UK. From post war to the poverty of Hong Kong and the opportunities in the UK from the 60’s and 70’s up until the 80’s and then the generation of Mandarin speaking people who came post Tiananmen Square originally. It is war time refugees, migrants looking for a better life and the educational and professional aspect of migration.”

Mary’s experiences with the Chinese people is that many of them don’t want to talk about the past which made the research aspect of the play quite difficult. “They are very forward looking people. They are very much about making the best of things and moving on and doing the best they can for their family and children. It did take a long time to build relationships and trust and I was very lucky that I had some great support from various organisations like the Business Confucius Institute at the University of Leeds, the Leeds Chinese Community Association, the Leeds Chinese School and the Leeds Chinese Church. I was able to build up relationships with people in those organisations which enabled me to develop relationships where people did feel able to talk and also, because certain people didn’t want to speak English, through Mimi and other translators it enabled them to tell me their story in their mother tongue. If they spoke Shanghainese, Hakka or any of the other dialects I was able to work with an appropriate translator.” Through the extensive work and research that was involved with the project, there were some moments of true fulfilment which Mary reflects on. “Some people were telling their stories for the first time ever as many people hadn’t even told the stories to their own families. There is a reluctance among many Chinese people to dwell on the self. You move on, you work hard you build a future for your family and you don’t talk about what happened to you as a child. For some people it was an unusual thing for them to be doing. The daughter of one particular older gentleman whose experiences are represented in the play came to speak to me and said how wonderful it was because her father had been able to talk about his experiences to them too. It gave an opportunity for the whole family to realise what the older generation had been through. It did feel like an important thing to have done, especially with one or two people who I don’t think really knew what they felt about it or what their experiences were. If things are very traumatic you can understand why people wouldn’t want to recount it, but partly because I was unknown to them, taking time and listening to them with a sympathetic translator it was a comfortable opportunity for them to do that.”

From Shore to Shore is a project that has been many years in the making. “I have been working on the interview process since 2014. I met Mimi in 2010 and tried initially to get the project off the ground in Manchester, but for various reasons it didn’t quite come together. In 2014, working with Deborah Dickinson from Freedom Studios, we applied for Arts Council Funding and began the process from there. The work in progress was in October 2015, so there was a year where I was constantly working on the project with Mimi, from there we had to look for funding to get the production together and to rework the play and develop the project.”

The collaboration of the project is with her former course student, Mimi. Mimi has worked for many years in broadcasting and PR and she has a degree in linguistics. “Her English is as good as her Cantonese and Mandarin, so I knew that Mimi would be able to translate the nuance of what was being said in any language. It’s not that she just speaks the words, she understands the meaning.” Since the course in 2010 Mimi has gone on to do an MA in writing fiction. She has written two short plays for Yellow Earth in London and she’s writing a piece for the Manchester Confucius Institute which will be in a mixture of Chinese and English. “She is developing her own writing career at the same time as doing this project which was the whole idea of the original course!”

From Shore to Shore will be performed, in certain locations, at an actual Chinese restaurant. “In Glasgow it will be performed at the Òran Mór which is a converted church with a theatre space and they are catering Chinese food for the occasion. In York, there wasn’t a Chinese restaurant to accommodate us at the time of the performance so they are bringing in food from the Sun Rise restaurant in York which has been there for many years.” Mary went on to tell me about the set up for the performance. “The audience arrive and they are served soup and during which there is interaction with the actors. The show then begins and once it ends the main course is served. The audience will eat their food ‘family style’ which is traditional. The dishes are shared among people on the table. The idea is that, during the performance, you are at home with the people on your table who you may not know and that is your home for the evening. The whole theme of the show is how do we find a home.”

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From Shore to Shore tours to the following venues:

19th-20th May- Yang Sing Restaurant, Manchester

30th -31st May- Tai Pan Oriental Buffet, Liverpool

9th-10th June- Spurriergate Centre, York